What’s 21 billion kilometres away, 40 years old and carries a record featuring both Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”?
No it’s not your reclusive uncle with the strange taste in music who lives in the middle of nowhere. It’s the Voyager 1 spacecraft.
Last Friday Voyager fired its thrusters for the first time in 37 years, which is all the more remarkable considering it involved sending a signal that took 19 hours and 35 minutes to travel outside of our own solar system to a radio antenna just 3.7m wide.
Now you may be thinking (much like your hypothetical uncle) why on Earth should I care about some random spacecraft? Why are we spending all this time, money and effort on some trivial pursuit?
Well I believe it’s far from trivial. In my opinion exploring the universe is one of the greatest uses of time, money and effort that exists. Hopefully after reading the rest of this post, you’ll understand why.
Space exploration is about many things. It’s about discovery, exploration and expanding our knowledge. It’s about pushing the boundaries, solving problems and testing the limits of technology. And it’s also about humility and knowing our place in the universe.
Try this on for size. The diameter of the observable universe is estimated to be about 93 billion light-years. If every second of your life you circumnavigated the Earth, it would take you just over 696 billion years to have travelled as far as the observable universe, which is about 50 times the age of the universe itself (13.8 billion years).
Or how about this; if you took that entire lifetime of the universe and shrank it down to a single calendar year, with the present moment being midnight December 31st, every moment in recorded human history would have occurred in the last 13 seconds.
These mind boggling facts prompt us to think beyond our own tiny concerns, to wonder at the magnificence of the universe and put things in a grander perspective. Astronomer Carl Sagan expressed this perfectly back in 1997 in his beautiful description of the Pale Blue Dot.
If that hasn’t left you starry-eyed astrophile, let’s take a look at the more practical implications of space exploration.
There are few fields more motivated to innovate than the space industry and that quest for discovery has resulted in technology that modern day society wouldn’t be the same without.
For example in the 1960s NASA developed a special seating material that could help absorb impacts for its astronauts; you probably now know it by the comfortable name of memory foam.
And if that wasn’t enough to capture the importance of space technology, how about the foremost invention for selfie-lovers everywhere; the digital camera used in mobile phones. Originally developed for bringing space down to Earth, these sensors are currently integrated into one of every three cell phone cameras and every personal computer camera worldwide.
But they also brought us images like this; the Pillars of Creation.
(By the way, these towering smokestacks of interstellar dust are each 5 light-years [47 trillion kilometres] long.)
Which leads us to the third and most obvious reason to invest in space exploration; knowledge.
As previously established, our planet is a minuscule speck in the vast cosmic ocean. Understanding our existence requires us to look outside our microcosm and ask the big questions. When did the universe begin? How was our world formed? What will happen when the sun dies?
Each of these questions would have been impossible to answer without turning our attention to the stars. Knowledge is what makes our species special; with hundreds of years of hard-earned information at our fingertips, humans have taken over the world.
Space is where the undiscovered countries lie. There are more questions to be answered and more answers to be found out there than we could ever hope to uncover in our backyard.
Voyager 1 is now over 21 billion kilometers away, travelling at 17 kilometers per second, making it the farthest human-made object from Earth. Even at that speed it will be 40 thousand years before it makes a close approach to any other planetary system.
But when it does, it will bring a message from Earth; a Golden Record containing a “Noah’s Ark” snapshot of life on Earth.
This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. — President Jimmy Carter
On the record are spoken greetings in 55 languages, from Mandarin Chinese (“Hope everyone’s well. We are thinking about you all. Please come here to visit when you have time.”) to Aramaic (“Peace”) as well as a message from the children of planet earth.
But the record carries something else that might capture the history of humanity better than anything. The creative director of the Golden Record project was Ann Druyan and it was her idea to include a sample of human brain waves, recorded from her own thoughts as she followed a prepared a script.
But two days before the recording, Ann shared a life-changing phone call with fellow collaborator Carl Sagan. While working on the project together the two had secretly fallen in love and during the course of that single phone call they revealed their feelings for one another. When the time came to record her brainwaves, Ann could think of little else.
“My feelings as a 27 year old woman, madly fallen in love, they’re on that record. […] It’s forever. It’ll be true 100 million years from now. For me Voyager is a kind of joy so powerful, it robs you of your fear of death.” – Ann Druyan
So if the rest of my arguments haven’t persuaded you to care about Voyager, perhaps this will. Our little spacecraft is venturing into the unknown, a symbol of human ingenuity, carrying a message of hope from a troubled planet… and an eternal reminder of that most powerful of human emotions; love.